Another of Frontiers Records’ apparently endless combinations of hard rock all-stars, Sunbomb is the pairing of Stryper vocalist / guitarist Michael Sweet with L.A. Guns / ex-Brides Of Destruction shredder Tracii Guns. Per Guns, the two have been longtime friends, and they had initially discussed their primary bands touring together in a “heaven & hell” package, with Stryper’s Christian message balanced against L.A. Guns’ Sunset Strip sleaze. Those plans never materialized, so instead, we get Sunbomb and an album whose title clearly cribs from the same concept.
Putting its best foot forward, Evil And Divine opens with two of its best numbers, ones that embody Sunbomb’s dark-and-light / doom-and-trad combination, albeit in reverse order. “Life” bursts out of the gate with a modern feel, a few thirty-second-note double-kick runs short of full-on power/trad, all pedal-point melodic riff and uplifting chorus, while follow-up “Take Me Away” hits a doomy moment early on, a trudging take on Sabbath-via-Candlemass heaviness. It’s not an amazing song, but it’s a good one, and it and later highlight “World Gone Wrong” make a case that Evil And Divine would’ve been a more intriguing affair had it further explored doom metal. By the album’s midpoint, the material gets weaker, the formula established and not expanded upon, except for the “Good Times Bad Times” intro of the half-thrash “Born To Win” or the ballad “Been Said And Done,” which is by far the album’s least metallic and worst track.
Musically, of course, Sunbomb is a professional outing. Guns is — and has always been — a top-tier force on guitar, one who seems to never get as much credit as some of the others who came up around him (including his childhood friend Slash, whose band Guns helped found and to which he lent his adopted surname). His riffing here is Sunbomb’s best component, almost nothing like the sleazy hard rock of L.A. Guns, with only the raunchy swagger of “Stronger Than Before” coming close. Tracii has tackled heavier styles before, both within LA Guns (Vicious Circle and the ill-fated groove metal of American Hardcore) and without them (his solo record Killing Machine), but he’s not yet taken on this type of classic-styled metal. Though the riffs aren’t all knockouts, they show an aspect of his playing that we haven’t yet seen, and it’s a welcome foray into different waters. (But seriously, the stop-start pick-scrape bombs in the chorus to “No Tomorrows” are… well, we’ll say “distracting, at best.”)
For his part, Sweet is (ahem) a hell of a singer, but here’s where Evil And Divine gets a bit conflicting: Sweet can certainly belt it out, no question. With Stryper, he’s been pushing into increasingly heavy waters on each subsequent release, and these past four Stryper records have been some of their best work in nearly 40 years. But on these tracks, he often sounds like he’s out of his comfort zone, straining at the top of his range, his lines often resolving in throaty gravelly gargles that sound more choked than musical. He throws in plenty of those signature falsetto-and-vibrato wails, of course — that’s Michael Sweet for you — some Halford-indebted moments to punctuate the Priest-indebted trad metal, and in tracks like “Better End,” they work well. Still, his voice feels strained too often, like the songs are just right at the end of his reach. Also, his overall belting tone is so much a part of Stryper’s positivity that it’s hard for me to hear it in the context of something that’s meant to be heavier and darker. Where it should be high and soaring, it’s shouted and forced, and where it should be sad and bleak, it’s neither of those. It’s not a total failure, but aside from some generally mediocre material, it’s the album’s biggest stumbling block.
I’ve been both an LA Guns fan and a Stryper fan for thirty years now, so the combination of two of the creative forces behind each immediately piqued my interest. Though it’s not entirely a bad record, Evil And Divine suffers from a noticeable case of Side-Project Syndrome: It’s sometimes a fun enough outing, but it’s also more interesting in concept than it ended up being in execution, and it’s certainly not as interesting as the primary outlets of any party involved. Die-hard fans of either band — or of 80s hard rock in general — will find some merit within, but overall, Evil And Divine ends up in the middle of both, neither dark enough nor light enough, and less than the sum of its parts.